A Litmus Test of Religiosity
Unfortunately, the question of whether or not it is halakhically permissible to swim on Shabbat has become yet another marker of one’s “frumkeit,” a basis upon which others may question their commitment to shemirat ha-mitzvot (the observance of the commandments). Like so many other humrot that have been contrived in the name of “custom,” this too has become a source of false religiosity and sinat hinam. Being explicitly permitted (given certain conditions) by the Talmud, the Rambam, and the Shulhan Arukh, those who declare it forbidden, whether they intend to or not, are essentially shaking their fingers condescendingly at Hazal and the Rishonim. Choosing to forbid what is permitted is just as detrimental as permitting the forbidden.
The Talmud Yerushalmi states in Masekhet Terumot (5:3):
כשם שאסור לטהר את הטמא כך אסור לטמא את הטהור
“Just as it is forbidden to pronounce that which is impure to be pure, so also is it forbidden to pronounce that which is pure to be impure.”
The Sefer Ha-Tashbetz (siman 537) writes regarding this statement:
כשם שאסור להתיר את האסור כך אסור לאסור את המותר
“Just as it is forbidden to permit the forbidden, so also is it forbidden to forbid the permitted.”
And this principle is affirmed by nearly all of the posekim, especially as concerns the determination of halakhah for the Jewish masses.
Swimming on Shabbath is Permitted
As it will be seen, swimming (under certain reasonable halakhic constraints and conditions) is permitted by the Gemara, codified by the Mishneh Torah, repeated by a plethora of Rishonim, and was even included in the Shulhan Arukh. With all due respect to kevodo ha-gaon ha-rav Feinstein z”l (and others – although Rav Feinstein is at least careful to note that me-ikkar ha-din swimming on Shabbath is mutar before stating that it is nevertheless the “custom” to forbid it), the apparent Ashkenazi standard of prohibiting the use of a pool on Shabbat – despite it being permitted explicitly by the sources – is dubious at best.
In the Mishneh Torah, the Rambam writes in Hilkhot Shabbat 23:5 –
אין שטין על פני המים גזירה שמא יתקן חבית של שייטין: בריכה שבחצר מותר לשוט בה שאינו בא לעשות בה חבית של שייטין: והוא שתהיה לה שפה מוקפת שלא ייעקר ממנה המים כדי שיהיה היכר והפרש בינה ובין הים
“We do not swim in [open, natural bodies of] water [on Shabbat]. This is a rabbinic decree lest one come to construct a barrel of reeds [i.e. for a flotation device]. A [man-made] pool inside of a courtyard is permissible to swim in as long as it has a lip surrounding it so that the water cannot run out of it [onto the ground around it], and in this way there will be a definite distinction between it and the sea.”
From here it clearly seen that it is indeed permissible to swim on Shabbath, provided that it is in a pool with a rim.
[See also Arokh HaShulhan, Hilkhot Shabbat, siman 339, se’if 4 for a fuller explanation of the halakhic difference between swimming in a river or lake and swimming in a pool.]
Halakhic Issues and Objections
Now, beside swimming itself there are several other issues raised by the occasion of swimming that carry with them some halakhic concerns, both regarding the laws of Shabbat and otherwise:
1. Swimming attire – In ancient times, swimming was done without a bathing suit. In other words, the one swimming would do so while nude. Therefore, this halakhah is likely dealing with such a scenario. Given the prohibition on kibbus (laundering), how can one wear an article of clothing while in the water, doesn’t this constitute kibbus?
2. Wet hair – We know that it is prohibited to wring out we things on Shabbath (sehitah as a derivative of the melakhah of dishah – “threshing”), so wouldn’t wringing out wet hair fall under this category?
3. Tzeniut (modesty) – Is mixed bathing/swimming permissible? Can one go to a public pool on Shabbat?
4. Heating water – Most pools are heated and heating water is forbidden on Shabbat so is it prohibited to swim in a modern “heated” pool on Shabbat?
The answers to these concerns are a bit complex, but I will attempt to answer them here as concisely as I can.
A. There are many issues with regard to kibbus that could be discussed, but essentially the question is: On Shabbat may one get clothing wet and, if so, for what purpose? A clean suit worn into clean water is not considered kibbus since essentially nothing really happens. As for drying, the second part of kibbus, since people do not seek to immediately dry their suits but instead remove them while still wet which means that there is no issue here either. As for wringing out a bathing suit – as long as it is made of synthetic materials (such as polyester or nylon) there is absolutely no issue since we have a principle of “אין דישה אלא בגידולי קרקע – there is no concern for [the melakhah of] dishah [threshing] except with articles made of [plant] materials that grow from the ground” (cf. b.Shabbat 75a et al). Therefore, there is no prohibition of squeezing synthetic materials (more on this in the next section). And even if one were to wear cotton while swimming, it would be fine as long as one does not wring them out or squeeze them – provided that the swimming suit is clean and the water is clean. (For those who object, ask yourself if it is permitted to remove wet cotton clothes when caught in the rain on Shabbat. It certainly is. The halakhah does not require people to stay in uncomfortable clothing on Shabbat or any other day.)
B. Pursuant to the previous section, wringing out wet hair does not present a halakhic issue either. It states explicitly in Mishneh Torah (Hilkhot Shabbat 9:11) that there is no prohibition of “squeezing” or “wringing” (sehitah) with regard to hair or leather. There are those who maintain that the Rambam means to say that there is no issur of sehitah min ha-Torah, but that a mi-divrehem (rabbinic) prohibition still applies. This understanding of the Rambam, however, is incorrect, as is explained by the pirush of Rav Yosef Qafih z”l (there, #32). Thus, the hair or beard may be squeezed and wrung out on Shabbath without any concern at all, as can a swimsuit made of synthetic material (or one made of goat hair, but I haven’t seen any swimsuits like that yet!)
C. Mixed swimming is permissible since it occurs in context. Immediate family swimming together while clothed is perfectly fine. This may be derived from the laws permitting even kiruv basar while sleeping between nuclear family members in the same bed of the opposite gender. Once the child has shame, clothing or a blanket to separate between skin and skin is required. Swimming together while clothed in a private pool (without other, unrelated people) should be fine, and the small children who are still toddlers and unaware of their own bodies could swim in any bathing suit or even without clothing if necessary. [See MT Hilkhot Issurei Bi’ah 21:6-7, et al]. Also, going to a public pool may also be fine if one is accustomed to seeing people in bathing suits since this too occurs in context. If, however, someone finds that they are too distracted while in such a context then they may abstain from it. However, this does not change the permissibility of swimming in a public context for those to whom it does not present a problem provided, of course, that all other rules of decorum are maintained.
D. The prohibition to heat water on Shabbat is only in regard to the temperature of yad soledet bo (around 110 F). Thus, a warmed pool is not an issue. [See Arokh HaShulhan, Hilkhot Shabbat, siman 326 , se’if 3]
Swimming: Not in the “Spirit of Shabbath”?
There are many today who claim that swimming is not in the “spirit” of Shabbat. However, we must ask ourselves what it is that determines the “spirit” of any mitzvah. Is it the halakhah or how we feel? It seems that Hazal felt that the “spirit” of Shabbat is determined by the halakhah – i.e. through abstention from doing melakhah, refraining from discussion of melakhot, and through not doing things that may lead to melakhot. Swimming (within the guidelines set by Hazal) does not fit any of those descriptions. Instead, it seems that taking a permissible “dip” on the seventh day may actually fall into the category of oneg Shabbat (“Sabbath pleasure” – this view is expressed by Rav Yitzhak Abadi shlit”a, and may be found on his website kashrut.org).
The fact is that a great many Haredi-Hasidic Jews frequent heated mikvaot on Shabbat without even giving it a second thought. There is little or no practical difference between swimming and going to a mikveh, but feel free to present this point to Haredi or Hasidic Jews – it can be amusing to listen to their attempt to justify themselves.
Sadly, I have personally heard condemnations of religiously orthodox Jews by Haredi and Hasidic leaders sounded from the bimah simply because they choose to swim on Shabbat. Such people were described as “bodies without souls” and “destined for the dustbin of history” etc. simply because they choose to relax in such a [permissible] way on the seventh day. Such sentiments are pure sinat hinam, i.e. “hating” someone as if they are an open sinner when in fact they are not. The truth is, if someone doesn’t want to swim on Shabbat – despite it being explicitly permitted – then they should not swim. To put it another way: If you don’t like mayonnaise, then don’t spread it on your sandwich, but leave the jar out for those of us who want to.
[A helpful teshuvah on this subject by Rav Ratson `Arussi shlit”a – containing much of what has been explained here – may be found here.]